You won’t believe how magnets are changing medicine
You won’t believe how magnets are changing medicine
From braces to heart surgery, this new technology is making a huge difference in medical treatments.
Cleopatra may have known a thing or two about the healing power of magnets. History books trace magnetic therapy back to the Egyptian queen, and the ancient Greeks used them to cure everything from aches and pains to diseases.
Today, magnetic therapy is still used to treat a wide range of health issues. It's often associated with easing osteoarthritic pain, but the jury's still out on whether it works. What science has proven, however, is magnetic therapy's effectiveness at treating depression, migraines and heart arrhythmias, and there's also new hope for those living with multiple sclerosis. We look at the advances the medical experts are excited about.
Magnets may hold the key to slowing the progress of multiple sclerosis (MS), a condition of the central nervous system in which there's a loss of myelin, the insulating layer around nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord.
When myelin is lost it leads to symptoms such as muscular spasms, problems with balance and arm and leg function, pins and needles, and memory loss.
More than 23,000 Australians have MS, with most diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40.
Australian MS researcher Dr Kaylene Young is exploring how a painless procedure called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) could repair myelin and so reduce the effects of MS.
It involves a circular magnetic coil being placed just above the head, where it produces gentle magnetic stimulation to the brain.
This triggers new insulating cells to grow and wrap around nerve fibres. While its potential as an MS treatment has so far only been tested on mice, Young says the results have been encouraging.
"The treatment speeds up cell maturation, increases their survival and increases the insulation laid down," she says, adding that she plans to conduct human trials at Royal Hobart Hospital next year.
"At the moment, there's nothing to promote brain repair for people with MS," she explains. "If we can use this treatment, the long-term damage of MS could be a lot less and people could live normal lives."
Magnets have been used in dentistry for 40 years, especially when it comes to keeping dentures in place. For this, a magnet is placed in the bone where the dentures will be fitted, then the opposing pole magnets are placed in the dentures. The magnets attract, keeping them firmly in position.
Small magnets have also been used to hold jaw and face prostheses in place following cancer surgery.
Magnets are now being used for orthodontics to help straighten and space teeth. These 'magnetic dental attachments' – which are being used by some orthodontists in Australia – are far more discrete than the traditional braces many of us had to wear.
"The magnets used in orthodontics attract the teeth, or push them away from each other, using magnetic force," Dr Scott Davis of the Australian Dental Association says. "This means you don't need bulky springs, bands or wires.
In the UK and US, magnets and TMS are being used to treat migraines. A study by TMS device manufacturer Neuralieve found that 74 per cent of users had success using the treatment to relieve a migraine, experiencing little to no pain two hours later, with similar reductions in light and sound sensitivity.
In Australia, about 15 per cent of people suffer a migraine at some stage in their life. At the moment, TMS for migraine isn't being used in Australia.
TMS devices have been approved as a treatment for migraines by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence in the UK, and by the Food and Drug Administration in the US.
"This is a breakthrough treatment for those who can't tolerate or don't respond to current treatment, and it opens the door for a new era in treating migraine headaches," Dr Fayyaz Ahmed of The Migraine Trust in the UK says.
Abnormal heart rhythms – arrhythmias – affect about 5 per cent of women and 6 per cent of men in their mid-50s and above. The electric signals that coordinate our heartbeat become dysfunctional so the heart beats too fast, too slowly or irregularly.
This can cause fatigue, dizziness and shortness of breath.
In the US and UK, researchers are investigating a cutting-edge magnetic navigation system to carry out a treatment called catheter ablation. Usually, a catheter is manually manipulated as it's inserted into the patient and used to scar small areas of heart tissue to stop the faulty signals. The new treatment uses magnetic catheters that can better access hard-to-reach and sensitive areas in the heart.
"Catheters with magnetic properties aren't widely used in cardiovascular medicine yet but they can be better at negotiating tricky bends in the heart," Professor Garry Jennings, chief medical advisor of the Heart Foundation, says.
And, he adds, magnets have other benefits for heart treatment:
"We also use them for programming pacemakers.
They respond to electrical impulses or magnetic fields and we use external magnets to change the rate as needed."
Magnets trialled for sleep apnoea
Each morning, thousands of Australians wake up after a night of broken sleep caused by obstructive sleep apnoea. Standard treatment is a machine connected to a face mask via a tube that gently pumps air down the throat to keep the airways open. But a new option could be on the horizon, with trials in the US of a device called Magnap that uses magnets to hold the airways open at night. A small magnet is placed under the skin of the neck via a small incision. While asleep, patients wear a neck collar containing an opposing pole magnet that attracts the implanted magnet and keeps the airways open.
When medication and psychological therapies don't work, magnets can help some people manage depression.
TMS is used to create a magnetic field that stimulates a small area of the brain involved with regulating mood.
Dr Stephen Carbone from Beyondblue says the treatment takes about 15-30 minutes a day for three to four weeks.
"TMS induces a change in the electrical circuitry of the brain and this changes the chemistry and the way the brain cells talk to each other," he explains.
TMS was first trialled as a treatment for depression in Australia in 1997, but it's mostly used in private hospitals and clinics as the costs aren't covered by Medicare as yet.
"No treatment for depression is perfect but TMS has a place for people who don't get better with standard treatment procedures," Carbone says. "It's quite simple, it doesn't require any anaesthetic and it has no major side effects.
When people do respond to treatment, it really can change their life."
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